Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.

My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.

Getting to the Roots

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Those words of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, written in 1854, still speak wisdom today. He was addressing social evils such as slavery, but the image applies equally well to marital strife and personal struggles with morality and spirituality. It’s an apt image in every case. Remove the evil fruit, and more will take its place, again and again.  Cut off the branch, and it will eventually grow back – along with the fruit it bears. If we are serious about change, we will need to go down to the roots.

Digging down to the roots of a tree is hard work enough. Doing so with the human heart takes enormous courage and vulnerability. We will never be able to do it alone. The prophet Jeremiah describes it well: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Our own hearts are a mystery to us. Only in communion with God and others can we discover the full truth about ourselves.

I’ve shared before the insights of Mark and Debbie Laaser. They wrote a book for married couples entitled Seven Desires, in which they identify certain universal human desires: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They often tell couples, “The problem is not the problem,” using the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem,” what we focus so much of our energy and attention on, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention.

For example, Fred may be an alcoholic. At first glance, his drinking is the main problem in their marriage. After all, his acting out with alcohol has damaged his health, his career, and his relationships. But his drinking is not the primary problem. Lurking beneath are painful places of his heart that he does not want to enter: sad places, lonely places, feelings of unworthiness and shame, as well as distorted beliefs about himself and about God. He is afraid to go down there because of the pain. Little does he realize that, even deeper in his heart is the full and glorious truth about himself – that he is a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. In the depths of his good heart he still feels very deep and very good human desires: to be loved and accepted unconditionally, to feel safe and secure, and so forth. With the right kind of encouragement, he can reconnect with those deeper desires. Whether in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous or some other support network, he can find the encouragement and consistency needed to journey into the labyrinth of his heart – and discover God’s image there. Meanwhile, Fred’s wife Sally needs to discover that her deepest pain is not from Fred’s acting out with alcohol. She has an unexplored iceberg of her own, including deep desires and painful problems that existed long before she met Fred. She, too, will need enormous support to begin believing that her heart is good and worth fighting for.

Let’s return to Thoreau’s image of the roots of a tree. Bob Schuchts offers a similar image of the human heart in his book Be Healed. He contrasts the Tree of Life (an image for our life in Christ) with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (an image for our life of sin).  Drawing from Ephesians, he describes a process of security / maturity / purity as we grow from the roots to the trunk to the fruits. By contrast, our life of sin sprouts up from the roots of insecurity, grows in immaturity, and bears the rotten fruits of impurity. The unhealthy growth comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins. The rotten fruit that emerges are the sins we priests typically hear people confessing –over and over and over again. Perhaps it’s gossip and jealousy, perhaps fault-finding and outbursts of anger, perhaps pornography and masturbation, perhaps overindulging in food and drink.

Those poor penitents sincerely desire to stop their sins. And without a doubt, they are forgiven every time. But they are likely to keep repeating the same sins until they can go down to the roots. There Bob describes the “seven deadly wounds” of abandonment, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, confusion, rejection, and shame. We experience these wounds during the most painful moments of our life. It is within those deep human wounds that the evil one eagerly attempts to sow his lies: you are all alone, you will never figure it out, you will always mess it up, no one would ever want to love you… We can carry these lies within our hearts for many, many years.

Healing at the roots of our sins includes allowing Jesus to enter in and cast out the lies about ourselves and about God. Even more important than renouncing the lies, it means positively allowing the love and truth of Jesus to be proclaimed and embraced and integrated. It is one thing to believe a truth intellectually, but another for it to sprout and grow and bear fruit.

As we approach another Easter, may we all take courage in the fact that Jesus has borne our pain. By his wounds we are healed. He knows the depths of our hearts and desires to meet us there with his love and truth. May we all have the courage to go down to the roots.

Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

Lessons from Master Yoda

“You must unlearn what you have learned.” These days I find myself pondering those words of Master Yoda. For the sake of the unfortunate uninitiated souls somehow still unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe (I suppose there are still one or two left), I can remind everyone of the plot of The Empire Strikes Back. After a dull childhood on a desert planet, Luke Skywalker has found himself swept up into great space adventures, joining the rebellion against the evil galactic empire. He begins to discover his true destiny as one of the Jedi, the ancient noble protectors of the galaxy, who are able to tap into “the Force” to do things that normally would seem impossible (e.g.,glimpsing the future or moving objects through telekinesis).

Much of the movie depicts Luke’s training with Yoda, the legendary Jedi Master. After Luke crash lands his spacecraft into a swamp, he encounters an odd creature. He does not realize it is Yoda, whom he seeks, because he is expecting a massive and mighty warrior. Instead, he encounters a diminutive 900-year-old Muppet.

Yoda proceeds to train Luke with all the methodology of a Zen master. Again and again, Luke discovers that his preconceived expectations do not match the deeper reality. The training stretches him physically and mentally and emotionally, often resulting in childish pouting and fits. At one point, Yoda asks the impossible – for Luke to use the Force to lift up his spacecraft that has sunk into the marsh. Yoda assures him that the task is no different than moving a small rock. It is only different in one’s mind. It is at that point that Yoda utters two of his famous taglines: “You must unlearn what you have learned” and “Do or do not; there is no try.” Luke “tries” and does not. Yoda then stuns Luke by doing the impossible and lifting the ship.

Eventually, Luke grows and matures. He needed more time to unlearn what he had learned. His transformation was slow and gradual, sometimes painful and frustrating, but also featuring moments of  breakthrough and liberation.

I can definitely relate. As you probably know by now, during these past couple of years, I have been on a journey of personal healing and freedom. To summarize the experience, I can turn to the words of another Luke, namely, the Gospel writer. Mine has been the experience described by Simeon during the Presentation in the Temple. As the Virgin Mary brings the baby Jesus, Simeon speaks a cryptic prophecy over her: “A sword will pierce through your own soul, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). These past couple of years, I have experienced an ever deeper relationship with Jesus’ mother Mary. Staying close to her sorrowful heart, I have found my own heart being laid bare, layer by layer.

Like Luke Skywalker, I have found some steps of the journey to be exhilarating. He discovers hidden abilities and begins doing things that he never would have imagined possible. I have definitely discovered new joy and freedom, hidden blessings and gifts. Many of you have marveled at the way I slowly but surely lost weight (over 70 pounds!). That has been more a side effect of healthier living than a direct goal. The journey into my heart showed up in my body. What had previously been impossible suddenly began happening.

At other times, like Luke in his training, I have found myself pushing against invisible barriers – the diabolical lies and unholy agreements forged long ago in my heart. God has been delivering me from lies of shame, fear, rejection, and abandonment.

Lately God has been uncovering layers of self-protection, going back even to my earliest years of life. I have been learning to see my whole life as a big and beautiful story, guided by God and, yes, sharing at times in Christ’s suffering. Obviously, I do not explicitly remember my infancy, but I am beginning to understand how profoundly painful it was. My father was recently returned from the Vietnam War, in which he had navigated bombing missions. He felt personally responsible for those deaths. As I was born, he was plunged into addictions and significant mental health challenges. My mother, overwhelmed, moved back to Wisconsin for support, seeking to reconnect with the Church and with extended family. But in the meantime, with both parents traumatized, there were inevitably times in which I as an infant found myself feeling alone and unnoticed, uncared for and unloved. At times during my prayer, I have experienced fragmented and very painful emotional memories – along with deep consolation and healing. God has been showing to me that, even before conscious thinking, I made a vow that it would be much safer and much less painful to be “independent” and look after myself. I repeatedly ratified that vow over the course of my childhood amidst painful family situations. I used my imagination to forge an enormous inner world, one to which I could safely escape, and in which I could avoid the awful pain of feeling unwanted or unloved or rejected.

That inner world was beautiful, but lonely. I suppose that I needed some level of self-protection, and continued to need it for a while. The problem is that I don’t need self-protection anymore – yet still find myself engaging in it – even against God himself. I daily call on the name of Jesus to break the chains that I forged when I made that unholy vow, all those years ago. With help from God and others I am unlearning what I have learned. I am learning to be loved and to love.

I suspect that most of you, like Luke and like me, have many lies to unlearn as we all seek to abide in love and truth.